In many ways, Poland cleared the way for the revolutions that followed. The founding in 1980 of Solidarity, the first independent labor union in a Warsaw Pact country, demonstrated the power of ordinary citizens to force concessions from their Communist rulers. General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law 16 months later crushed the movement, but it prevented a Soviet invasion and was seen as a signal that Moscow had ceded control. In the early months of 1989, a resurgent Solidarity demanded a seat at roundtable talks with Communist authorities. By April, the Communists had agreed to legalize the trade union and schedule semi-competitive parliamentary elections, setting in motion a stunning series of electoral losses that led to the appointment of Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the country's first non-Communist prime minister in over four decades. The next year, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa was elected Poland’s president.
RFE was long distinguished in Poland for its authority, independence, and restraint. Pope John Paul II once told legendary Polish Service Director Jan Nowak-Jeziorański that he used to listen to his broadcasts while he was shaving in the morning. Survey data shows that almost two-thirds of the Polish population listened to the short-wave broadcasts during Solidarity’s rise in the early 1980s. Asked once to comment on RFE’s relationship to the trade union, Solidarity President Lech Wałęsa famously said, “The degree cannot even be described. Would there be earth without the sun?" Former International Broadcasting Board Chairman Malcom S. Forbes, Jr. was commenting on the Polish Service’s agility and engagement when he said in a 1993 interview, “When something happened in Gdansk, the whole country heard about it. Whatever happened in Cracow, people in Gdansk knew about it.”
By 1989, when the round-table talks began, the Service’s weekly reach was about 50 percent of Poland’s adult audience. “There is no curtain of silence anymore,” remarked Service Director Marek Latynski in early 1988. “Nobody is afraid to talk to us anymore.” That year, the Service interviewed 190 prominent Poles by telephone from Munich, a milestone for the Service and a breach in the Iron Curtain that demonstrated that freedom was eclipsing fear. It was also able for the first time to air regular reports from unofficial correspondents inside the country, a tentative step toward establishing a local presence that was previously unthinkable.